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Eating problems

Learn about eating problems, including possible causes, symptoms and how to access treatment and support. Includes self-care tips for helping yourself, plus guidance for friends and family.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis based on your eating patterns. It involves medical tests on your weight, blood and body mass index (BMI).

An eating problem means any relationship with food that you find difficult. Not every eating problem will be diagnosed as a disorder.

Eating disorders are a diagnosed type of eating problem.

Diagnosing an eating disorder

Food is one of the many mediums through which our emotions and distress can be expressed.

Understanding feelings and behaviours linked to certain eating disorders can be helpful. This is true even if you don't have a diagnosis. Or, if you prefer to consider your experiences in a non-medical way.

There can be complications in getting a formal diagnosis:

  • If your problems with eating aren't easy for your doctor to categorise, they might not give you a diagnosis.
  • You may have a very difficult relationship with food which affects your mental health, but doesn't fit into any current diagnoses.
  • You may be experiencing more than one eating disorder, or symptoms from multiple disorders.

Body mass index (BMI) and diagnosis

In your assessment, your BMI should not be the only factor your GP or hospital doctor takes into account.

Unfortunately, diagnosis and treatment for an eating disorder can be related to your weight. You could have a serious problem with eating, but without meeting the criteria for diagnosis. This can feel very frustrating.

However, you should not need an eating disorder diagnosis to get treatment for an eating problem.

Usually, your recommended treatment will be for the disorder most similar to your eating problem.

See our page on treatment and support for more details.

Bulimia

If you get a bulimia diagnosis (known as bulimia nervosa), you may experience a cycle of what's called bingeing and purging.

  • Bingeing is eating large amounts of food in one go. You might do this when you're struggling with feelings or problems in your life.
  • Purging is acting to get rid of the food you have eaten after bingeing. You might feel guilty or ashamed of what you've eaten.

Bulimia and your feelings

If you experience bulimia, you might feel:

  • shame and guilt
  • hatred towards your body
  • that you are fat
  • scared of being found out by family and friends
  • depressed or anxious
  • lonely, especially if no one knows about your diagnosis
  • very low, sad and upset
  • quick or sudden changes in your mood
  • stuck in a cycle of feeling out of control and trying to regain it
  • numb, as if feelings are blocked out by bingeing or purging.

Bulimia and your actions

If you experience bulimia, you might:

  • eat lots of food in one go (binge)
  • go through daily cycles of eating, feeling guilty, purging, feeling hungry and eating again
  • binge on foods that you think are bad for you
  • starve yourself in between binges
  • eat in secret
  • crave only certain types of food
  • try to get rid of food you've eaten (purge) by making yourself sick, using laxatives or exercising a lot.

Bulimia and your body

While experiencing bulimia, you might:

  • stay roughly the same weight, or experience frequent weight changes
  • be dehydrated, which can cause bad skin
  • get irregular periods or none at all, if you usually menstruate
  • harm your teeth and get a sore throat from stomach acid, by making yourself sick
  • develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stretched colon, constipation or heart disease, if you use laxatives.

A young man coping with bulimia: my experience

"Eating disorders in men, just like depression, should not be a taboo subject."

Anorexia

If you get an anorexia diagnosis (known as anorexia nervosa), you’re not eating enough food. This means you're not getting the energy you need to stay healthy.

Some people think anorexia is about slimming and dieting, but it's much more complex. At its core, it's often connected to low self-esteem, negative self-image and feelings of intense distress.

Anorexia and your feelings

If you experience anorexia, you might feel:

  • unable to think about anything other than food
  • like you need to be perfect or you're never good enough
  • lonely, especially if no one knows about your diagnosis
  • a need for control, that you feel you lose by eating
  • that you're hiding things from family and friends
  • that you are fat and scared of putting on weight
  • that losing weight isn't enough
  • like you want to disappear
  • angry if someone challenges you about your weight or food intake
  • tired and not interested in things you normally enjoy
  • like you cannot see a way out, even depressed or suicidal
  • anxious or panicky, especially around mealtimes
  • like it's an achievement to deny yourself food or over-exercise.

Anorexia and your actions

If you experience anorexia, you might:

  • reduce your food intake or totally stop eating
  • spend a lot of time counting calories of everything you eat
  • hide food or secretly throw it away
  • avoid 'dangerous' foods, like those with high amounts of calories or fat
  • read recipe books and cook meals for others, without eating them yourself
  • use drugs that claim to reduce your appetite or speed up digestion
  • spend your time thinking about losing weight, checking and weighing yourself
  • exercise a lot, with strict rules about how much you must do
  • develop very structured eating times
  • make up rules about food – for example listing 'good' and 'bad' types or only eating certain colours of food.

"I started starving myself as a means of control. Everything else had been taken out of my control, but no one could force me to eat. I'd enjoy and crave the feeling of my stomach being... empty."

Anorexia and your body

While experiencing anorexia, you might:

  • weigh less than you do normally, or should do for your age and height
  • lose weight very fast
  • become physically underdeveloped, especially if anorexia starts before puberty
  • feel very cold and weak
  • move around more slowly than normal
  • have irregular periods or none at all, if you usually menstruate
  • lose your hair or start to have very thin hair
  • develop fine fuzzy hair on your arms and face, called lanugo
  • lose interest in sex, or find you're not able to have or enjoy sex
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • develop fragile bones or problems like osteoporosis – this is a disease that makes your bones break easily.

Talking about eating problems

"I was scared I wouldn't 'qualify' as anorexic, that I wasn't 'good enough' at it."

Binge eating disorder

If you get a diagnosis for binge eating disorder, you might feel unable to stop eating, even if you want to.

With binge eating disorder, you might rely on food to make you feel better. You might also use food to hide difficult feelings. It is sometimes described as 'compulsive eating'.

Binge eating disorder and your feelings

If you experience binge eating disorder, you might feel:

  • out of control
  • as if you can't stop eating
  • ashamed of how much you eat
  • lonely and empty
  • very low, even worthless
  • unhappy about your body
  • stressed and anxious.

Binge eating disorder and your actions

If you experience binge eating disorder, you might:

  • eat large amounts all at once (bingeing)
  • eat without really thinking about it, especially when doing other things
  • often eat unhealthy food
  • eat for comfort when you feel stressed, upset, bored or unhappy
  • eat until you feel uncomfortably full or sick
  • hide how much you are eating
  • find dieting hard whenever you try it.

"I dread any event with a buffet. Because I know I'll eat and I'll keep eating and I won't even enjoy it but I'll eat because I feel somehow I have to. I'll eat even when I'm feeling full, when I'm feeling bloated, feeling pain in my gut, feeling sick."

Binge eating disorder and your body

While experiencing binge eating disorder, you might:

  • put on weight
  • feel sick a lot
  • have shortness of breath
  • get sugar highs and lows, which means having bursts of energy then feeling very tried
  • develop health problems, such as acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • develop problems linked to being overweight – for example type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or joint and muscle pain.
Green office chair on light brown floor

Binge eating disorder: it felt momentous to have a calm, ordinary conversation about it

"The first GP I told was clueless. But another GP encouraged me to tell her more, and I learnt about the help I could get."

Other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)

If you get an OSFED diagnosis, you have an eating disorder. However, you don't meet all the criteria for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

This doesn't mean that your eating disorder is less serious.

OSFED just means that your disorder doesn't fit into current diagnoses. Getting a diagnosis of OSFED can help you access treatment and support.

You can experience any feelings, actions or body changes linked to other eating disorders.

Previously, OSFED was known as ‘eating disorder not otherwise specified’ (EDNOS).

For more details, see Beat's information about OSFED.

"I was assessed by my local eating disorder service and was given a diagnosis of EDNOS. I managed to get my eating back on track. I continue to work on the feelings with the help of my therapist and am very much in recovery."

Other eating and feeding problems

For your eating problem, you may get a diagnosis for one of the eating disorders explained on this page.

However, there are other diagnoses you may receive.

These tend to be much less common than anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Rumination disorder

If you get a diagnosis of rumination disorder, you'll regularly regurgitate your food. Regurgitating means bringing food back up that you've already eaten and swallowed.

You won't have a physical health problem to explain it. You might re-chew, re-swallow or spit out the food you regurgitate.

For more details, see Beat's information about rumination disorder.

Pica

If you get a diagnosis of pica, you'll often eat things that aren't food.

The things you eat tend to have no nutritional value. Some examples may be chalk, metal or paint. This can be very damaging to your body.

For more details, see Beat's information about pica.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

If you get a diagnosis of ARFID, you'll strongly feel the need to avoid certain foods (or all foods). This might be because of smell, taste or texture. The idea of eating may fill you with anxiety.

ARFID does not tend to be linked to body image issues. It's more anxiety about the process of eating itself.

For more details, see Beat's information about ARFID.

"My eating disorder has never been about body image or control, and I've had it for as long as I can remember. When I'm faced with certain foods I feel a reaction in the pit of my stomach like someone has put a plate of the most disgusting things in front of me. I can only equate the sensation to walking past an open sewer."

This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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